Making Nature Competitiv In Toronto

The 1990s in Toronto were a period in which two distinct regimes of urban ecological modernization followed each other (for a recent overview of an application of this concept see Desfor and Keil 2004). First, coming immediately out of the exuberant and growth-intoxicated 1980s but based on the historical compromise of the liberal 1970s was an "ecosystem approach". This approach was promoted in particular by the Royal Commission on the Toronto Waterfront since 1988 and became the operative ideology for all urban development discourse in the early 1990s. It remained at least partly committed to the core values of Toronto's liberal growth regime; not surprisingly, the head of the Royal Commission was ex-mayor David Crombie, who was one of the figureheads of the reform movement. Since the recession tested Toronto's growth regime in general and urban development in particular after the crash of 1989, a second ecomodernization discourse started to form, which was more aggressive and neoliberal than its predecessor and soon freed itself from the constraints that may have been placed on free market reign by traditions of redistributional politics, conservationist discourse and democratization. This second, more neoliberalized ecomodernization project made itself relevant to a region in economic crisis and fell in line with the more conservative politics that beset the Province after 1995. The symbolic benchmark of this period was the elaboration of a soil remediation policy, which allowed for economic-ecological win-win situations all around and provided the basis for a thorough revitalization of real estate market once the economy picked up in the late 1990s (Desfor and Keil, 2004; Stewart, 1999).

The countervailing discourse to the predominant practice of ecological modernization was a growing popular and sometimes radical urban environmental politics that developed around a few prominent issues, most notably around ecological spaces such as the Leslie-Street-Spit, the Don Valley and the Rouge River. But there were also significant struggles around issues of toxic soil hotspots, local air pollution through incineration, and green work (Hartmann 1999; Desfor and Keil 2004; Keil 1994). In this alternative discourse, the Toronto Environmental Alliance5 became the dominant voice for a progressive and democratic—if somewhat centrecity and middle-class biased— urban ecological movement in the city. The Task Force to Bring Back the Don, a more moderate organization of mostly conservationist activists in the neighborhoods abutting the Don River in the East of Toronto, was the most visible showpiece of Toronto's civic environmentalism and the clearest example of the emergence of a new system of urban ecological governance that integrated civil society concerns directly into the architecture of the local state (Desfor and Keil 2004).

The political centrepiece to this alternative and critical discourse has been provided by a set of progressive city councilors and provincial representatives, particularly those associated with the New Democratic Party. Of those, Jack Layton appears as the most representative of both a persistent catalyst of radical ecological politics in the City and conduit into the administrative and political process. One long-time observer of the political scene in Toronto notes:

Jack Layton who was an incredible Councilor—the year after he, when he lost the Mayoralty election he was footloose and fancy free and the two of us set up a coalition for a green economy with Gary Gowan from the Liberals and he went deep green in that period. It began as a sort of Keynesian economics essentially like people who believed in government spending to get out of the depression and they may as well spend it on an environmental project as anything else. Some went deep green in the process and he was one of them and he really has a profound understanding of it and wanted to do something about it and I think that's why he eventually left municipal politics—he wanted to play with those ideas in a bigger arena.

(Roberts, personal interview, 3 December 2003)

Both discourses—ecomodernist and radical ecological—were active at the time when Toronto was amalgamated in 1997. They actually both played heavily into the amalgamation debate where one side spoke of economic efficiency and growing out of the ecological crisis through more consolidated economies of scale; and where the other side insisted on the value and virtue of the local communities and ecological topologies of the diverse and globalized city. The question of the size of government and the size of municipal area was closely connected to environmental sensibilities in at least four ways: 1. The "civic environmentalism" of Toronto was closely linked to the downtown reform politics of the post-1970s; 2. The split in political culture between the central city and the suburbs was perhaps nowhere felt as much as in the field of environmental politics; 3. Most environmentalists were convinced that amalgamating Metro Toronto was too little or too much centralization: the bioregional scale may have been more appropriate for ecological regulation; 4. The neoliberal impetus of the consolidation nurtured fears among environmentalists that programs would be cut, regulation of polluters would be weakened and more suburban settlement forms would outweigh sustainability concerns.

The general expectation among environmental activists in 1997 was that amalgamation would have negative effects on the tremendous progress achieved since the beginning of the 1990s. This pessimism was largely due to a political analysis that contrasted the progressive inner city with the more conservative suburbs. Fowler and Hartmann write: "The aftermath of the first mega-city election, which saw the reduction of elected officials from 106 to 57, not only shifted the political balance to the right, it also shifted political power from the downtown core to the generally more conservative suburbs. The new mayor, former North York mayor Mel Lastman, came to power on a Tory-style agenda featuring a tax freeze. And he could count on a majority of councilors—mostly from the suburbs—to support his neo-liberal agenda" (2002:157). This "suburbanization of local politics" (Keil 1998) was a distinct reality and a shock to the liberal-progressive political regime that had existed in the downtown core for the past two decades. It was generally and correctly assumed that this regime had provided a comfortable shell in which very successful urban ecological projects such as the work of the Task Force to Bring Back the Don River could be moved forward (Desfor and Keil 2004: ch.4). A dissociation of development politics from social and environmental concerns seemed typical of this period as spectacular megaprojects, mostly in the entertainment and sports sectors, were built and planned for, and condominium towers went up along the waterfront, while homeless youth were pushed from squats, squeegee kids were criminalized, and environmental concerns were driven into the background of the public agenda. Fowler and Hartmann conclude that in the context of the new governance structure of the megacity, "the Toronto environmental movement and other allies struggled to keep environmental issues from falling off the public policy radar screen. After a decade of growing success, environmental advocates found themselves in a new political terrain that left little room for any environmental initiatives that could not be presented as 'good for business'" (2002:157). The contextualization of all things environmental in a development regime that was at best ecomodernist, and at worst indifferent to ecological affairs, indeed, created much anxiety in the environmental community in Toronto. Interestingly, though, the changes in the regime did not come as expected. One reason, following Fowler and Hartmann, was the attention the Toronto Transition Team (TTT), responsible for setting up the newly amalgamated municipal government, paid to the "many and difficult environmental issues facing the new city" (2002:158). One of the TTT's recommendations was the establishment of an Environmental Task Force (ETF), which was indeed created by City Council in March 1998.

The TTT's recommendation was not the only reason for the birth of the ETF. The new municipal regime was also born in a set of specific crises that needed more than the usual attention. As a consequence, the environment, homeless activism and diversity policies again became important areas of municipal activity in Toronto in the late 1990s. The outcome of the dissocation of the mid-1990s was the sectioning off of certain responsibilities from the main development discourses and their subordination under it when and where needed (Olympic bid, waterfront). The new mayor Mel Lastman, as oblivious as he had been to issues such as homelessness, poverty or the environment, realized quickly that in order to govern both the City with its complex socio-ecological structures and dynamics and the wildly unruly City Council, he would have to compromise and delegate. Some progressive downtown councilors played a key role in this politics of compromise. They were all associated with the social democratic New Democratic Party, in particular the left-wing power couple Jack Layton and Olivia Chow as well as gay councilor Kyle Rae. While the former two became the environmental, housing/homelessness and children advocates of the new city, Rae became an unlikely ally for Lastman's regime in the promotion of glitz, culture, entertainment, central-city gentrification and revanchist measures in the downtown core.6

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